Post­ed by Nat Bernstein

2015 was a rich year for Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture of all gen­res, and its con­tem­po­rary authors had plen­ty to share with read­ers beyond their books through Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe and inter­view series. With so much incred­i­ble con­tent to explore in review of the past year, we’ll start you off with fif­teen high­light inter­views, read­ing rec­om­men­da­tions, and lit­er­ary and per­son­al essays on read­ing, writ­ing, and Jew­ish iden­ti­ty from some of the lead­ing writ­ers of 2015!

1. Soon, I’ll Know All the Words They Know

by Par­naz Foroutan

It was uncan­ny, her por­trait in black and white on the cov­er of the book and my own school pic­ture. The same smile, the same cheek­bones, the same nose. The same black, thick hair, cut just above the shoul­ders and held back by a bar­rette. And dark eyes, like mine. The book had small black words crowd­ed togeth­er, page after page, bleed­ing through the pages, end­less. I whis­pered the words of the title, test­ed their weight in my mouth, Anne… Frank… Diary…” Con­tin­ue reading »

2. The Doomed Generation

by Joshua Cohen

After Num­bers, nothing’s left. Deuteron­o­my isn’t a book, but what hap­pens after books: just recaps (in case you missed the action since Sinai), sum­maries (in case you missed the action at Sinai), instruc­tions (What Thou Shalt Do, and What Thou Shalt Not Do, Beyond Moab), and lists (The Top Ten Commandments)… 

To read about Num­bers’ doomed gen­er­a­tion was to read about my own — a gen­er­a­tion born in the 1980s enslaved to the page, but by the mil­len­ni­um freed by the screens, to search — or, in alter­nate terms, to wan­der. The Cloud now guides us by day and guards us by night, secur­ing while sur­veilling — our man­na is data, infor­ma­tion, the con­tent that nev­er quite con­tents us. Because for all the sites of our sojourn­ing, we keep mov­ing on: noth­ing can hold us, noth­ing sus­tains. It’s as if we’re always seek­ing a site just beyond — a text that stills us, but that can still be passed on. Con­tin­ue reading »

3. May As Well Be Called Jesus

by Christo­pher Noxon

As an unof­fi­cial, unaf­fil­i­at­ed friend of the Tribe, I found a cer­tain free­dom. I couldn’t don the prayer shawl or offer an aliyah at my kids’ bar and bat mitz­vah, but with a few excep­tions I was wel­comed to par­tic­i­pate. It was kind of great, actu­al­ly. Friends born into it dealt with com­pli­cat­ed famil­ial asso­ci­a­tions or pangs of guilt or embar­rass­ment as they made peace with their Judaism. Every prayer offered or drei­del spun con­jured com­pli­cat­ed mem­o­ries of over­bear­ing moth­ers, hor­ri­ble Hebrew schools, and anguish over Israel. Their prac­tice of Judaism was wrapped up in thorny ques­tions of iden­ti­ty and heritage.

I had none of that. I could approach Judaism unbur­dened by ques­tions of whether doing this prac­tice or not made me a good” or bad” Jew. I could do” Judaism, enact­ing the spir­it of the prac­tice with­out wor­ry­ing about the labels asso­ci­at­ed with it. Con­tin­ue reading »

4. Inter­view: Bar­bara Klein Moss 

with Nat Bern­stein

Intrigued by a nefar­i­ous Jew­ish char­ac­ter in Bar­bara Klein Moss’s debut nov­el, Jew­ish Book Coun­cil sought to learn more about the sym­pa­thet­ic ser­pent in The Lan­guage of Par­adise. Between com­par­ing out­ra­geous exege­ses on the sto­ry of Eden and swap­ping slip-ups in tran­si­tion­ing between writ­ing in arcane lan­guage and liv­ing in the mod­ern world, the author offered insight into the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence of nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry New Eng­land and the com­plex­i­ties of cast­ing a Jew­ish vil­lain. Con­tine reading »

5. My Top 5 (Recent) His­tor­i­cal Novels

by Janis Cooke Newman

Look­ing over my list, I notice that three of my rec­om­men­da­tions are set — or par­tial­ly set — dur­ing World War II, the time peri­od of my own nov­el. When I start­ed A Mas­ter Plan for Res­cue, I had trou­ble find­ing any­thing new that was set dur­ing World War II — and I do remem­ber search­ing. But late­ly, there’s been a bumper crop of won­der­ful nov­els set in that era. Which kind of makes you won­der what was in the cul­tur­al ether sev­en or eight years ago that prompt­ed so many of us to write about the time peri­od. Con­tin­ue reading »

6. We’re Liv­ing in a Gold­en Age of Jew­ish Amer­i­can Art and We Don’t Real­ly Know It

by Matthew Baigell

These are great times for those of us who sup­port, encour­age, and enjoy look­ing at art with Jew­ish themes. Per­haps nev­er before are so many artists all over Amer­i­ca find­ing inspi­ra­tion in the basic texts of the reli­gion — the Torah, the Tal­mud, kab­bal­ah, and the dai­ly and high hol­i­day prayer books. The artists do not just illus­trate these texts in tra­di­tion­al ways but chal­lenge them, espe­cial­ly fem­i­nist artists opposed to male patri­archy, and find per­son­al themes and sub­ject mat­ter that allow for per­son­al flights of fan­cy.
Con­tin­ue reading »

7. An Age of Cre­ative Read­ers Makes for Lit­er­a­ture Which Is Immortal”

by Nat Bern­stein

Jew­ish Book Coun­cil is proud to announce the real­iza­tion of its project to cre­ate a dig­i­tized archive of Jew­ish Book Annu­al in part­ner­ship with the Cen­ter for Jew­ish His­to­ry, pre­sent­ing over half a cen­tu­ry of nation­al dis­course on Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture in an inter­ac­tive, search­able for­mat to hon­or the 90th anniver­sary of the first Jew­ish Book Week.

Jew­ish Book Annu­al came into being in the midst of World War II, and the world’s events were very much present in the minds of the journal’s first con­trib­u­tors. From the per­spec­tive of the twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry read­er, Vol­ume I’s cri­tiques and essays are almost over­shad­owed by the intro­duc­to­ry notes from mem­bers of the Nation­al Com­mit­tee for Jew­ish Book Week, stat­ing the impor­tance of ongo­ing Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture and com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment in the face of the Nazi eugenic ter­ror­iza­tion of Europe. Con­tin­ue reading »

8. Allud­ing to the Torah

by Daniel Tor­day

My years as an under­grad­u­ate were neat­ly book­end­ed by read­ing the two most high­ly allu­sive books of mod­ernism. When the time came to write my own first two books, though, I found my sys­tem of allu­sion was nowhere near so broad. I have not tried my hand at get­ting down just a bit of San­skrit, as Joyce did in Finnegan’s Wake (I’ve heard that there are as many as 60 lan­guages used to some degree of com­pe­tence in that nov­el, though I’ll nev­er try to find out myself — not smart enough). I don’t have a strong sense of the Greeks, as Eliot did. What I had was the Torah. Con­tin­ue reading »

9. Five Sim­ple Ways to Be Good to a New Mom

by Elisa Albert

Judaism has very clear, wide­ly prac­ticed pro­scrip­tions for how to sup­port the bereaved, but strange­ly we don’t talk much about how we sup­port women who are about to or have recent­ly giv­en birth. Which seems remiss, giv­en that birth and death are so clear­ly on the same con­tin­u­um, sacred por­tals at oppo­site ends of life. If how we process and hon­or death mat­ters, then how we deal with birth must mat­ter in direct pro­por­tion. Prob­a­bly the Rab­bis weren’t so con­cerned with how women get through the child­bear­ing year because hey, the women had it under con­trol. But giv­en the dire state of child­birth and ear­ly moth­er­hood in the here and now, per­haps it’s time we brought these issues into the light, so as to bet­ter address them. Here are a few sim­ple ways to be decent to peo­ple who are work­ing very hard to bring forth and nur­ture new life.
Con­tin­ue reading »

10. Inter­view: Etgar Keret

with Bec­ca Kantor

I don’t expe­ri­ence my fic­tion and non­fic­tion as short, but as con­cise. There is some­thing very inten­sive and full of ener­gy in my writ­ing expe­ri­ence. I once said that, for me, writ­ing feels very much like an explo­sion — and I haven’t yet learned how to explode slow­ly.” Con­tin­ue reading »

11. A Sacred Space

by Michael Gold­ing

On Tues­days and Thurs­days, from the age of eight until the age of thir­teen, I was fetched after school and dri­ven to KI” — Reform Con­gre­ga­tion Kene­seth Israel in North­east Philadel­phia — to attend Hebrew school. Despite my efforts, the lan­guage nev­er took. The primer was dull, and the strange hiero­glyph­ics on the page failed to resolve them­selves into mean­ing. When class let out ear­ly, how­ev­er, I would slip into the dark, emp­ty sanc­tu­ary and wait there until my moth­er arrived to take me home. I liked KI. The Bible sto­ries we were told on Sun­day morn­ings were stir­ring. The ser­mons of Rab­bi Korn had the pow­er to inspire. But the moments I liked best were the ones I spent alone — in the shad­ows — in silence — with God.
Con­tin­ue reading »

12. I’m Telling Everyone

by Judith Claire Mitchell

I sup­pose if it were a mat­ter of life or death I’d lie about my back­ground, but even then I know I’d have a hard time. Being Jew­ish is such an intrin­sic part of who I am that soon­er or lat­er I always find myself wav­ing my flag. It’s sort of like the old joke about the elder­ly Jew­ish man who enters a con­fes­sion­al and tells the priest he’s just had sex with a young and beau­ti­ful woman. But you’re Jew­ish,” the priest says. Why tell me?” Are you kid­ding?” the old man exults. I’m telling every­one.” Con­tin­ue reading »

13. The Land of Aardvark

by Jerome Charyn

Has any­one ever real­ly dealt with the Jew­ish under­class of the Bronx, where I grew up, next to the trol­ley tracks of South­ern Boule­vard and Boston Road? Some of us might look back with a kind of nos­tal­gia, talk of a gold­en peri­od, when fam­i­lies ram­bled around Indi­an Lake in Cro­tona Park, before Robert Moses ruined the bor­ough with his super express­way. Peo­ple ask me if the Bronx had ever been my play­ground. It was a lit­tle par­adise of emp­ty spaces, a gar­den where noth­ing would grow, except bit­ter­ness and regret.
Con­tin­ue reading »

14. Mem­o­ry Games

by Sasha Abram­sky

I have been a jour­nal­ist for near­ly a quar­ter of a cen­tu­ry, and have, over the years, inter­viewed thou­sands of peo­ple. Yet my most recent book, The House of Twen­ty Thou­sand Books—a book that is, on one lev­el, sim­ply about the lives lived by my father’s par­ents; on anoth­er lev­el a jour­ney through the mod­ern Jew­ish expe­ri­ence; and, on yet anoth­er lev­el again, a por­trait of obses­sions — took me on an intel­lec­tu­al odyssey the likes of which I doubt I’ll ever again experience.

Writ­ing The House of Twen­ty Thou­sand Books, for sev­er­al years I immersed myself in the worlds, the dreams, the hopes and the fears lived by oth­ers. It’s a strange sen­sa­tion. In some ways, the real­i­ties of those oth­ers became more real than were my own. The polit­i­cal pas­sions, the bib­li­o­graph­ic obses­sions, the con­ver­sa­tions of my grand­par­ents and their friends and com­rades, became the fab­ric of my dai­ly life. I trained my mind to effort­less­ly wan­der book­shelves, con­tain­ing thou­sands of books on both social­ist his­to­ry and on Jew­ish his­to­ry, that had been emp­tied sev­er­al years ear­li­er, fol­low­ing my grandfather’s death; and I asked my palette to vir­tu­al­ly re-taste culi­nary mar­vels con­jured up by my grand­moth­er Mimi in her kitchen a gen­er­a­tion ago, to feed the many, many peo­ple who would descend on the House at 5 Hill­way in north Lon­don for meals and con­ver­sa­tion each and every evening for rough­ly half a cen­tu­ry. Con­tin­ue reading »

15. My Very Unortho­dox Kabbalist

by Sigal Samuel

Image from An Illu­mi­na­tion of Bless­ings by Ilene Winn Lederer

To study Kab­bal­ah, you’re sup­posed to be (a) forty years old, (b) mar­ried, and © a man. I am none of these things. Luck­i­ly, I grew up with a dad who was a pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish mys­ti­cism and was will­ing to share its secrets with me.

Raised in Montreal’s Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ty, I attend­ed a school with strict gen­der norms. I was expect­ed to obey all of Judaism’s 613 com­mand­ments. But, as a girl, I wasn’t allowed to take an inter­est in the religion’s more eso­teric branch­es. That didn’t stop my dad from giv­ing me lessons in mys­ti­cism. Con­tin­ue reading »

Think anoth­er post should have made it onto this list? Let us know in the com­ments sec­tion below!

Relat­ed Content:

Nat Bern­stein is the for­mer Man­ag­er of Dig­i­tal Con­tent & Media, JBC Net­work Coor­di­na­tor, and Con­tribut­ing Edi­tor at the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and a grad­u­ate of Hamp­shire College.